I lived in London for a few years and all I got was this really intense work ethic.
People love to talk about how expensive it is to live in London, how people work too hard and don’t say hello to each other, how it’s generally a pretty unliveable place to be - but the resounding answer from many Londoners is - you just get on with it, you make it work Why? Because many people move there in search of opportunities and either find them, or don’t have another option. Though pints are expensive, there’s a £1.20 tin across the road, you walk 40 minutes to meet friends in a park, you stay on their sofa, they stay on yours, you feed them, they lend you a fiver, you put change in the big machine at Sainsbury’s and attempt to get on a guest list. Though the cost of living crisis makes the news of late, this is also how many of us have been living wherever we are for years.
The London Dream was something I grew up with, the idea that London was where cool stuff happened because that’s where cool people were. A melting pot of ideas from different places and an urgency to try and make them all happen in whatever DIY form that took. I fell in love with it quickly. I was going to craft markets, drinking oat flat whites, hopping on the tube, hanging out at experimental performance nights, meeting bands I’d followed for years and eating hangover breakfasts with a big collection of really cool people. My sixteen year old self was ecstatic.
To fund this after uni, I was at points juggling around five zero-hour/freelance jobs, packing breakfast, lunch and dinner in my rucksack to eat on the overground between shifts. I might not have had a day off for a couple of weeks, but when I did I’d pack everyone I knew into them, or try and stay awake at the pub in the evening. I was ‘keeping up’ Devil Wears Prada style and doing it so seamlessly that I didn’t often realise I was burned out.
This was all for the purpose of racking up a network I could evidence on my CV while I figured out the next step. And here’s where the irony begins to set in: My specialism is Socially Engaged Art. I’m interested in people supporting each other to challenge the inhumane systems we live in, to create moments of exchange outside of capitalism and give people access to ‘free time’ to see how they might use it creatively. Therefore, working loads of jobs to pay for a tiny room in one of the most expensive cities in the world started to give me The Ick.
If I’m talking about fairer living conditions for people, I should probably also be trying to make that happen for myself. Beyond setting a good example, I’m also learning pro tips to share with others, trying not to pour from an empty cup, and contribute to a higher standard of living. In a world of competitive capitalism, if I agree to work for cheap, I’m surviving while fucking over the artist that set their rate fairly. When I don’t have to do this, I’ll try my best not to - which is much more viable while living outside of a major city.
A BRIEF BREAK IN PROGRAMMING WITH A LIST OF SHITTY THINGS THAT I DID NOT NOTICE WERE TOXIC AT THE TIME:
Being told that when I moved back to the north I’d be a ‘big fish in a small pond’ which would get stuff on my CV so I could come back to London and get a better job.
Getting to work one morning to hear a colleague had come off his bike on the way in. After being hit by a car, his first thought wasn’t that he might be hurt, but that he was going to get fired for being late.
Realising people I respected were aiming for a big flat in a posh area, rather than a feeling of community.
Being told, when I quit a volunteering role at a Major Art Institution, that ‘if you love this work enough you’ll do it for free’.
Telling jobs that I could no longer afford to stay in London and would be leaving - them responding by asking for the design files that would allow them to continue my work without me.
That one job where the cleaners, gallery staff, and zero hour contracted workers ate in the windowless basement, and the (all white) learning team ate in the swish library.
On a lockdown walk I told my housemate that I was thinking of leaving London. I was starting to feel like I was always the ridesmaid (workshop assistant) and never the bride (artist) and I couldn’t see a future in London where that would change. She surprised me by telling me that it made total sense; she’d watched over the years as I’d repeatedly climbed the same ladder and gotten pushed off of each rung.
I started tentatively applying to remote commissions in the North West and was bowled over by nice responses (even when I wasn’t successful, they responded!!!), interest and opportunity. So while I’d like to say my move to the north was a salt of the earth move to return to my roots, the reality is that there wasn’t room for the work that I wanted to do in London, but there was elsewhere. I was a big fish in a big pond, now I’m a big fish in a different big pond where the water suits me better.
What to take from this? There are times when you take stuff in and there are times when you put stuff out. There are times when you read, watch films, go to exhibitions, talk to people, listen to people, go to workshops, research. And there are other times where you make. When I look back at the time I spent in London, it was taking-stuff-in time, learning about big organisations by standing around in exhibitions, reading books from the staff library, watching films recommended by friends with different references, going to gigs of bands I’d never heard of. But I couldn’t put stuff out at the same time - my brain was too full! I was exhausted!!! I can’t do both at the same time and I don’t want to. Consume/produce sounds grim, but your consumption can be staring at a wall and your production can be making a sandwich. These things don’t have to be grand, but it’s really hard for me to make the sandwich and eat it at the same time.
On the other hand, the master’s tools won’t dismantle the master’s house, and I am enamoured by the people that know this. I love artists who unashamedly don’t give a shit about London because they’re interested in doing things slowly, or they make work about regional dialects in Wales, or they want to start a food co-op in their hometown.
I think major cities are like anything that some people talk about too much - If you don’t want to watch Twin Peaks, that’s totally fine. It may help if you have an answer to why you haven’t watched it that helps you to change the topic of conversation (ie. I haven’t watched Twin Peaks because I’m actually very busy trying to consume all of WitchTok). But if you keep thinking about Twin Peaks and feeling guilty for not having watched it, maybe you should just give it a bloody go. Season two is a slog that may or may not be worth it.